User:FelixSagittarius/The Talking Box

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Felix the Centaur
Preceded by: From the Horse's Hoof
Succeeded by: At the Ranch

The Talking Box

Author: Felix Sagittarius
Tales from the Blind Pig story universe
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By Felix Sagittarius

The ride to Doc Malcolm's home and large animal hospital only took twenty minutes - but I was overjoyed to get out of that trailer! I had only been a horse for a few hours, thanks (?) to the Martian Flu, and I was not yet used to the way I had to balance on four feet, let alone in a trailer. Every bump, stop, and start caused me to bang around inside that tin box, so when Doc Malcolm lowered the tailgate, I all but leaped out!

"Easy, James, easy!" he laughed, then apologized, "Sorry, I should have warned you about the way a trailer rides. Rough, was it?"

I nodded deeply, then looked around at my new home. A nice house, a good sized barn, and several other buildings made up the near part of the area, and I could see several large fields behind them. I could smell several other horses, some cattle and other animals whose scents I didn't yet recognize. Several large dogs came running over, and he stopped to wrestle with and pet them before he brought them over to introduce them.

"James, these are my friends Ajax, Achilles, and Patrocleus. My wife has a cat we've named Homer, since he can sing all night! And they're not Changed, just plain dogs. At the moment, you're the only Changed here. Boys, this is James."

I dropped my head and sniffed at them, and they did the same with me. Their individual scents were amazingly clear, and my memory took them in and saved them, as I once would have the face of another human. They raced off, barking, and I turned my head to Doc Malcolm and cocked my head, to indicate 'What next?'

"Come on, and I'll show you where you'll be staying in the barn, and introduce you to my staff and my wife. You'll need careful watching while you get used to your new body. I'll be available at all times, and I'll put an alarm switch in your stall so you can call me at need. If I'm called away, one of the staff will answer. This isn't going to be easy for you, I've worked with enough other radically Changed to know that, but we'll be there to help as best we can. You'll also need shoes, to save your hooves from wear, and some injections for equine specific diseases, but that can wait a few days. If you'll step this way?" he said, and we walked off to look over the barn.

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The last month had been...interesting. Going from a human, with hands, speech, and a future, to suddenly being a horse was incredibly difficult. Just learning how my new body worked was - strange. Getting used to the wide angle and poor resolution of my new eyes was only one of the many changes. I found, to my intense relief, that I could still read, but only on a special enlarging screen Dr. Malcolm had installed in the SCABS quarters. I spent a fair amount of time the first few days reading up on equine behavior, anatomy, nomenclature, and illnesses, gaining a fuller understanding of my new self in the process.

The suddenly massively enhanced senses of smell and hearing, the way my body now felt, having a tail, being able to shudder my skin...all of them took time to get used to. To say nothing of getting the reactions and normal body functions under control; that alone took weeks. The first time I dropped and took a leak was a total surprise. Getting that and elimination under my control was a job, like toilet training all over.

Another thing I discovered, while standing under a tree in the pasture and thinking over my problems, was that there was a secondary - mind? - in here with me. I had drifted into deep thought, and was suddenly startled to find that I was grazing! I held my self...aside...and watched for a bit. It turned out that there were a set of what I guess could be called subroutines, instincts and reactions built into the body, that amounted to a horse mind that took over when I was distracted. It instantly surrendered control when I became aware again, but it was strange, and again, took time to get used too.

After having steel shoes nailed to my hooves (an odd feeling in itself) I had to relearn to walk. Then, I had to learn to trot, to canter, and finally, to gallop; that alone had taken most of the month. But, I was determined to be what I now was to the fullest extent, and I had nothing but time to work at it. The worst problem was the difference in sleep patterns. As a human, I needed at least six to eight hours of solid, unbroken sleep. But, I found a horse doesn't sleep that way. A horse takes short sleep breaks of a couple of hours, during which the senses are much more active than in a human. The first time I suddenly woke, startled by a noise, was very frightening. Dr. Malcolm had been nearby, at his desk in the barn doing paperwork on me, and was able to quickly calm me down and explain what had happened. I learned, and, gradually, I was getting used to my new self. If I missed any one thing, though, it was being able to talk.

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"James? Hey, James, you in here? The Doc said you were," someone called from the barn door.

The day was warm, and I was dozing in my special box in the barn. Hearing my name being called woke me; I walked over to the open stall door and put my head out.

"Damn! Is that you, James?" It was Martin, my Ham Radio friend.

I nodded, then, as he came over, went to where I'd put a piece of board on the floor, and started tapping. The dot/dash (or in my case, tap/thump) rhythms of Morse code came rippling forth.

I tapped out <hi, Martin, don't u recognize my long face?>

"No, I sure don't!" he laughed. "Oh, man, that Martian bug got you but good, didn't it?"

I replied, <Boy, did it ever! Thanks for coming! I'm so glad to have someone to talk to who understands code! I've been trying to teach it to the Doc, but he's slower than molasses on Pluto! Did you bring the gear? The other horses don't really have anything to say and I'm desperate to talk to people again!>

"You can talk to the horses?" said Martin, startled.

I tapped <Sure can, but they are real horses and they don't have much to say. If the Doc hadn't rigged an old TV and stereo in here for me, I'd probably go nuts from boredom.>

"I think I know what you mean." he commiserated, "It's like being on a really strict job, one where you can't even use a headphone radio, let alone chat with your neighbor."

I nodded, then tapped <that's closer than you'd believe!>

Martin took a deep breath, then said, "James, about that code reader box. I contacted the engineer who originally designed the reader you sold me. I explained your problem, and he very sympathetic. He has a cousin who has SCABS too, and he had some ideas that he wanted to work on for you. You wouldn't know, but I never used that box. I found a code reader program on the web. I ran a lead from the speaker output of the rig to the input of the audio card in my PC, and that worked even better. The engineer and I have been working on something along that line. So, what I need now is a sample of you tapping out code, so we can figure out how to make the gadget interpret what its hearing. I brought my old cassette recorder, and if you'll provide the sample, we should be able to have a ...'talking box' for you in a week or so. OK?"

I nodded again, disappointed, but intrigued by what he had planned. <OK,> I said, <turn on your recorder, and I'll tap and thump all you want!>

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Things must have gone better than he'd hoped, because Martin and someone else showed up again in three days. I was grazing out in the pasture when I saw Martin's car pull up to the Doc's office. I trotted down to the fence and watched as they got out. Martin saw me and waved. I whinny'd back, then he walked into the office to speak with Dr. Malcolm. I carefully opened the gate, walked through, then closed and latched it to keep the real horses from getting out. (I did that regularly; it spooked the hell out of a new employee who didn't know about me yet!) I walked over to the office and stood, waiting to find out what was up

Doc Malcolm, Martin and the other man came out of the office and walked up to me. Martin said, "James, this is Mr. Shaynes, the engineer I talked to about your problem. We have something to try out. He wanted to meet you, and see if there are any problems with the gadget."

I turned my gaze to Mr. Shaynes, nodded at him as a greeting. I reached back and pulled the piece of wood I used as a sounder from the ID collar and set it on the ground, then tapped out, <Hello, Mister Shaynes. I'm James Maxwell, and Martin has told me of your help with this. My deepest thanks for your kind aid.>

He laughed and said, "I'm a Ham too, James, and I read code. I'd offer to shake hands, but we'd probably have a problem there. I hope the device we've built will work for you. I'm very interested in seeing it translating, so why don't we get it set up and let you try it out?"

Martin had walked over to the car; now, he brought out a case and a small folding table. He brought them over, set up the table, put the case on it, then opened it with a flourish. In the case was what looked like a laptop computer, minus the keyboard and mouse pad, with a cable hanging from it, leading to a battery pack with a large bat handle switch.

"This is what we've come up with, James," he said. "You turn on the power with the switch, and input code through a wireless mike we'll attach to your hoof. The receiver puts out audio, into the computer, which should display it on the screen. We tested it with the recording you made, but now we need to have you do it live. OK?"

I nodded, then lifted a hoof and held it out. They rubber banded the mike in place, then stepped back.

"Turn it on, James. We need to make this a complete test," Mr. Shaynes said.

I carefully felt for the switch. I can't see my nose but the whiskers around my lips told me where the switch was, and I flipped it on. The unit came to life with a muted whine, so high pitched I didn't think the humans heard it. The LCD panel lit up, along with the power light. I gave it a moment, then started tapping.

<Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the quick red horse ran over the bright green grass in the summer sunshine - is that enough?> I sent, then looked at the screen. I couldn't read it, the print was too small, but there was something on it.

"It works, it works!" Martin cried, "All right, we did it!"

"So you did," said Dr. Malcolm. "My congratulations to you all!"

Mr. Shaynes smiled, then said, "I've got another idea or two for it, but I can work on them after we get this version cased and ready for you to wear, James. I know how eager you must be to be able to talk again."

I nodded, then tapped <You got that right, Mr. Shaynes! That's about the worst part about this!>

They removed the mike from my hoof, packed the equipment and table, then got back in the car and drove off. I sighed. Doc Malcolm patted my shoulder, then said, "Now you have something to look forward to. Congratulations on having such loyal friends!" I nodded, then turned and walked back to the pasture, my spirits high.

They were back the next day. I was in my box in the stable, dozing, when I heard the car approaching, being chased by the dogs. I put my head out, and watched as they pulled up at the office. Doc Malcolm came out and spoke with them, then they got the equipment out of the car and walked over to the stable. I stepped out into the aisle and waited impatiently, nervously shifting my weight from hoof to hoof, as they came in.

"Here it is, James!" Martin called, and I saw that they had enclosed it in a clear plastic box to weatherproof it. "The batteries are a standard laptop type, and we brought a spare to charge while the first is in use. You'll have to have someone change it for you, but it should last a long time, since it doesn't have a lot of the load a real laptop would have. The code program is burned on a prom, so we did away with the hard drive, and the audio card is built in, and without an output for the moment. The display will be the main draw, and we set the back light so it only turns up brightly in the dark, which will drop the power need even more. Depending on how much you have to say, you can probably get several days of use out of one battery."

I nodded, understanding what they had done. Far more clever than I had thought of myself, I'd only thought to try something with the reader box. But, they'd gone far beyond that.

"Lets get it installed - we got measurements on a collar like yours and we can attach it to that, with the battery serving as a counterweight on the other side," Martin said.

He and Mr. Shaynes got busy, and shortly thereafter, they had it securely mounted. It wasn't very heavy at all; a little awkward, but I could get used to that. I wondered how it would take the shaking of trotting and galloping, but, when I asked, they had thought about it and had put in flexible shock mounts - they should take it in stride, they laughed. I snorted at their amusement, then gave them the horse laugh.

"James, I did some thinking about that mike," Mr. Shaynes said. "My original thought of simply gluing to your hoof has problems. Hooves grow, like finger nails, and have to be trimmed. So after a while, the mike would have to be broken loose and repositioned, with a good chance of damage. So, what I've decided to try is a sleeve wrapped around your lower foreleg. It should pick up the tapping all right, yet be in a safe place. So, we need to wrap it on. We'll give you a few days to work with the system, then we'll be back to see how it works, field any complaints, and finish the unit for you. OK?"

I nodded, then, again, held out my hoof. They wrapped the mike on, then closed the Velcro straps that held it in place. I put my hoof back down, then said, via the box, <Thank you, Martin, and you, Mr. Shaynes. You can't believe how much this means to me. Again, my deepest, most heartfelt thanks!>

Martin shuffled his feet, then said, "James, you must know that this has cost a fair bit of money and time. I took several days off at the firm - if I hadn't been a senior partner, there might have been things said, and I provided the funds. Not a problem for me, being a lawyer has some advantages! But Mr. Shaynes has worked evenings and weekends to get this done, and normally his time isn't cheap. What I'm saying is we want some recompense. We want your permission to publish a couple of articles, one in QST, and in a couple of technical magazines, in Mr. Shaynes case. We want some pictures of you using the talking box, to illustrate the articles. Is that all right with you?"

I snorted in astonishment. They would ask so little, after giving me such a gift? I closed my eyes, wishing that I could still cry. I prayed to Epona and the Gods to thank these wonderful people with a blessing. I felt so humbled, of course I'd do as they asked! I opened my eyes, looked at them, and sent, <Of course you have my permission! And, Doc, I know you've mentioned an article in the SCABS medical journals about the talking box, please do it. My friends, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! Again, my most humble thanks.>

Martin grinned, and pulled a small digital camera from his pocket. "I hoped you'd feel that way, and came prepared!"

After they had taken a number of pictures of me using the box both in the barn and in the pasture, they prepared to leave. I walked over to the car with them, then Mr. Shaynes stopped, seeming to remember something. He said, "James, do you have any recordings of you talking? I know it's unusual, but I thought I'd ask."

I looked at him in astonishment. < Why, yes, I do, at my home. I used to volunteer to read stories and books aloud for the Talking Books for the Blind Project, and kept copies for myself. They're on tapes in my den. Why do you ask? >

"I've got an idea. I won't go further, as it may not work, but I need them." he said. "Can I get your house keys?"

< Of course, > I replied, and nosed at the pouch they were in. He got them out, and I said, < The tapes are in a black case on one of the bookshelves - the only black one. >

"I'll copy them to CD and put them back," he said. "I'll return the keys when we come to check the performance of the box, next week. See you then!"

He got in the car, and they drove off. I watched them leave, puzzled, then turned to Doc Malcolm and said, < I wonder what that was about? >

He laughed with delight. "I can't even guess, but having you just ask that question like that, to talk again - I'm almost overwhelmed!"

I realized what I'd just done - to simply talk again! I shook my head, then gave a snicker. < Doc, you may regret this - you may have trouble shutting me up! >

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I eagerly waited for my friends return at the end of the week, but Doc came to the pasture and told me they'd called and said they'd be delayed, but would be there in a couple of days. I was disappointed, and asked Doc if they'd said why.

"Nope," he replied, "just that something wouldn't be finished till then. And, before you ask, they didn't say what."

I grumbled to myself, but thanked Doc for telling me.

"For that matter, I've been getting some paperwork involving you," he said. "When they get here, I'll bring it out and we can discuss it. Your lawyer buddy may get some work out of this after all. Later, OK?"

I nodded, and went back to dozing, standing under my favorite tree.

By now, I knew the sound of Martin's Cadillac, and when I heard it down on the road, I raced over to the gate, and was standing by the house when they pulled up. Doc had seen me coming, realized what that meant, and was passing through the back door. I was dancing with anticipation, and I pulled out the (by now heavily dented and scarred) piece of oak board and set it down.

< Hello, and welcome, my friends! > I said. < I can report the talking box really works well, and has stood up to almost constant usage! >

Doc laughed, and said, "He means it too! He's been talking with everybody here, and then someone fed him a carrot. He's pestered my poor wife almost to distraction, and she finally told him if he put his head in her kitchen again, she'd crown him with a frying pan!"

That got a laugh from everyone. I drooped my ears to the sides and lowered my head, then said, mournfully, < I apologized for that, and I've hardly asked her at all since... >

"No, but what you've done to my poor orchard!" the Doc said. "He almost stripped the lower limbs of a couple of apple trees! He's been a different horse since you left that box on him!"

That provoked even more laughing, but then Mr. Shaynes said, "I'm sorry, James, but we'll have to remove it for a little while. We've come up with a modification for it, and I think it will please you. Oh, and here are your keys back. I had some trouble getting permission to get in, the government's gotten involved for some reason, and were taking an inventory for you."

Doc's face tightened, and he said, "I know something about that, and I'll discuss it with you when you get done."

I looked at him. He was upset about whatever it was. I began to feel nervous.

"Well, we still need to work on the box," Mr. Shaynes said. "If you'll stand still, James, this shouldn't take long."

They cut the ties that held the box and battery in place. Martin set up the folding table and put the box on it. Mr. Shaynes got a small box of tools out of the car and the Doc brought out a chair so he could sit and work. He started by unsealing the case, then removed the unit and set it upside down on the table. He unscrewed the back, and opened up the lower section. I moved to watch over his shoulder. He looked up and asked me to move as I was blocking the light. I stepped over to the side, but continued to watch.

"Oh, but this brings back memories," I thought to myself. I had done this kind of work for decades. "Never again, though," I sighed, looking at my hooves and lamenting the loss of my hands. I couldn't really see what he was doing now, and thought about cadging a carrot. They tasted really good now...but, one knot on the head was plenty!

I drifted away from my friends for a drink out of the water trough, then came back. The box was making noises now, as Mr. Shaynes made a test. I saw a couple of empty chip carriers on the table, and saw that he'd installed another switch, this one in the plastic case. My curiosity was growing fast, as I tried to figure out what he was doing.

Finally, he turned around and looked at me. "James, I need you to say something for me," he said. "Now we'll see how well my idea works."

Obligingly, I tapped out <something - will this do, or do you want more?> After a moment, I heard a thing I had never thought to hear again - my voice, saying "something - will this do..." I froze. It couldn't be! But, it was! I stared at him, in shock.

"Yes, that's your voice you're hearing." he said. "That's why we needed the voice tapes, and that we were late coming. I set up a way for the computer to translate your tapping into a word algorithm, then the machine looks up the word from a couple of proms with words in your voice on them, and sends it to the audio card and the speaker. It took a while to get it to work right, and even now it isn't quick on lookups. But the processor doesn't have much else to do, so it's slow only in machine terms. We've given you back your voice, James."

I stood, silent, with my mouth open. Then with a great whinny of joy, I whirled about and tore off across the yard at a full gallop. I slid to a halt, then gave a leap into the air, followed by a demonstration of jumping, twisting and bucking, out of sheer joy! I screamed with happiness, startling the other horses. The dogs joined in, barking, jumping, and chasing as I ran and jumped up and down the yard.

Martin, Mr. Shaynes and Doc Malcolm watched, laughing at my antics, then Mr. Shaynes returned to putting the machine back together, and the Doc walked into the house. I finally slowed to a halt, then went and got another drink. I walked slowly over to the table and stood, waiting for them to reattach the - now, literally - talking box. Mr. Shaynes resealed the plastic case, then he and Martin got it replaced on my harness.I reached back and flipped the power switch, and it whined to life.,

"Sirs," I said. "I, I can't thank you enough. Just the screen for communication was great, but, this, this is a gift from beyond all hope. Thank you, thank, you, thank you!"

I pressed my head against Mr. Shaynes chest, gently - as close to a hug as I could give these days. When I stepped back, he rubbed my muzzle affectionately, then said, "Its been a fun experiment, and I think it may even be patentable. Martin thinks so. I'll ask the company lawyer about that when I get back to work. James, my friend, its been a pleasure working with you. If you have any problems with the box, both Martin and Doc Malcolm have my number. Oh, the switch on the front of the case changes it from audio and screen to just screen, so you can give people a rest! Thank you, for having the imagination and courage to think of the code reader box and starting this rolling."

Just then Doc and his wife came out of the house. He had a bundle of papers in his hand, but much more important, she had a bunch of carrots! I went over, dropped my head, and drooped my ears. Then, tapping, I said, "Mrs. Malcolm, may I please have a carrot?" She laughed, then held one out for me. I lipped at it, and gently took it from her hand into my mouth. Then, crunching with gusto, I said, "Thank you!" She giggled, then held out another. I took it blissfully, and again thanked her.

The men laughed at us, then Doc said, "We need to talk about this paperwork. Lucie, I'll take those carrots and keep him happy for you. OK?" "Sure," she replied, then turned to me, shook her finger and said, "But no more begging at my window!" I hung my head and said, "Yes, Ma'am! One knot is plenty!" She giggled again, then went back inside. We all watched her go, a pretty, pleasant lady.

Doc cleared his throat, to get our attention. "James, I hate to spoil such a happy day, but, I've received some papers from the Department of Health and Human Services. They've been paying for your stay here, but they're coming for you in a week. You're to be transferred to the 'ranch' they have set up for large animal SCABS. And to pay for it, they've filed in court to seize your property to pay for your 'treatment'. Your house, car, and all belongings are to be sold, and your savings are confiscated too. Gentlemen, do you have any ideas?"

To be continued...

Preceded by:
From the Horse's Hoof
Felix the Centaur Succeeded by:
At the Ranch